If Notre Dame loses to Virginia Tech and/or USC, this season can be officially deemed a disaster — the program’s first bowl-ineligible year since 2007. But if you have a glass-half-full disposition, there still can be positives to take away from a lost season.
The emergence of freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson certainly would be one of them.
Stepherson is having the best season a true freshman receiver has had in the Brian Kelly era since 2010, perhaps ever, and is gaining valuable experience even as the Irish have slogged to a 4-6 record. He turned in his best game against Army — five receptions for 75 yards with a touchdown — and has 21 catches, 410 yards and four touchdowns on the season.
The last true freshman receiver who came close to that kind of productivity under Kelly was T.J. Jones, who caught 23 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns in 2010. Stepherson only needs three catches in Notre Dame’s final two regular season games to surpass every one of those numbers Jones — who developed into a steady, reliable target over his four years — put up six years ago.
Part of Stepherson’s emergence has been an opportunity that wasn’t afforded to Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, Chris Brown or DaVaris Daniels before him. Notre Dame had to replace its three leading receivers from last year (Fuller, Brown and Amir Carlisle), and with Robinson retiring over the summer, the Irish had to deal with massive turnover in their wide receiver corps.
But Stepherson, who enrolled early and was one of five players arrested for possession of marijuana in Fulton County, Ind. in August, isn’t just seeing a heavy workload because of a dearth of experienced Irish receivers. Coach Brian Kelly said the former three-star recruit from Jacksonville, Fla., roundly earned his playing time this fall by impressing coaches and teammates from spring practice through the summer and into fall camp.
“I think it's, first of all, the product of opportunity,” Kelly said. “Certainly a young, inexperienced group opened the door for him to go win a position. There were other guys there that certainly could have secured down that position, but he won the job. We didn't give it to him.
“But there weren't a lot of guys with a lot of experience in front of them, so I think it was a little bit of both. Inexperience, and then his skill set allowed him to go in there and win the job.”
Enrolling early certainly helped Stepherson develop a rapport with Kizer that’s still growing, though has paid off during the season. Kizer failed to connect with Stepherson on deep balls in back-to-back weeks against Navy and Army, but those two games have accounted for nine of Stepherson’s 21 catches this year.
“He continues to mature as a player in the understanding of where he needs to be and getting on the same page with DeShone,” Kelly said. “That's the most important thing — where is he going to be. And when you were talking about a quarterback and a receiver hooking up consistently, they've got to know where each one of them is going to be, and I think that that's probably the biggest change in Kevin in terms of over the past five, six weeks.”
Stepherson may be tasked with developing a rapport with a new quarterback next year, but the time he’s spent working on that relationship with Kizer should prove beneficial if Brandon Wimbush is throwing to him in 2017.
And Stepherson, along with young receivers like Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders, should give whoever Notre Dame’s quarterback is should have plenty of experienced, solid options to throw to next fall.